I know it’s been a while since I last wrote, and I’m sorry for that. But you should know by now that you and everybody back home are always on my mind. It’s just been real busy lately. And yeah, I know, that’s no excuse. But things have been going well. Or well, at least they were. Because Becs, you are not going to believe the crazy I ran into today.
Steve was having a shitty fucking day. It was an even shittier day than the string of all the shitty days he’d been forced to endure. And this evening, between the first and second moonrises, it had become even shittier. Still, today was the shittiest day of all the shitty days he’d been having lately.
And even worse, no matter how much he growled and bit and tried to fight back, he couldn’t help but think it was going to be his last.
There was blood dripping from his nose, and a pain in his side every time he tried to take a breath. His shoulder hurt from where it had been nearly wrenched from its socket, and he knew there would be bruises on his back and blood in his piss if he lived long enough to see the dawn. He was already down on his hands and knees, and yet those assholes just kept coming at him, laughing with each strike and his every desperate gasp.
He hadn’t even heard them. He had been minding his own business, trying to follow the trail the stable-hand had assured him was the quickest way to Elaris, when they had come out of nowhere. Four of them, taller than him by half, and the slimmest one more than twice his weight. They had demanded his pack, and when he refused, without another word, they were on him, snickering and sneering as if this were fun for them, a game to be played, and he the prize no one wanted to win.
He’d fought back, of course he had. He knew he was small, but he was not prey, in spite of how weak he felt due to too many cold nights and a hunger that never seemed to end since he’d started on his journey. And his pack contained all his worldly possessions, everything he’d managed to so carefully collect since he’d left home. A home he was now certain he would never see again. He wondered how long it would be before anyone realized he was not coming back. Too long, he knew, for it to matter in the end. Sam would eventually come, he supposed, and more than likely Natasha would join him. But they had their own concerns now, things they needed to tend to. By then it would be far too late, and his name would be added to the Lost. His most important task, which he had barely even started, and already his path had crumbled to ash, like so much else.
Still, if this was going to be the end of it, he would make his mother proud, and die on his feet.
“Aw, look at the little mouse, still trying to stand,” the first of his attackers sneered, as Steve used the tree they had thrown him against to leverage himself up. He was the tallest of them all, barrel chested and thick of thigh, with a messy topknot holding together ratty brown hair, and meaty fists. He had been the first to strike, and Steve could still feel the blow in his solar plexus.
“Give me…back…my bag…” Steve managed to pant through a mouth filled with both saliva and blood.
“What, this?” the second asked, reed thin, with greasy skin and even greasier black hair, as he held up Steve’s pack, easily swinging it in a circle by its straps. “No can do, little mouse. It’s payment, see, for passage through these lands.”
“It’s mine.” The words came out in a growl even Natasha would have been proud of, if not for the fact that they left speckles of blood on the dirt, Steve’s shirt, his chin.
“Not anymore, it ain’t,” the third, smaller than the other two but sharper, like a blade, a fang, a claw, hissed. “Like we said, it’s payment for passage.”
The greasy one stared at Steve, his head tilted to the side, nothing but mockery in the glint of his eyes, the curl of his lips. “Tell you what, if you can get it back, it’s yours.” Then with a sneer, he tossed the bag up and away, easily, as if the last three months of Steve’s life weighed no more than a feather, a pebble, so that it landed and caught in the lower branches of the nearest tree, laughing all the while.
That was when Steve struck. He didn’t have much, and he knew there would be even less of it, if anything at all after this, but he was his mother’s son and he would go down fighting. So he lurched forward, lungs burning and face throbbing, and used all his weight to plow into Greasy, knocking him backwards on his ass.
“You little shit!” Greasy cursed, before they were on him again, battering him with more fists, and kicks, and blows to his abdomen, until he was once again flung back against the tree by Meaty Fists, the force of the impact knocking the last of his breath from his lungs.
“The little mouse’s got spirit, you gotta give him that,” Meaty Fists laughed.
“Yeah, but spirit don’t bring coin,” the Sharp One hissed. “And he’s too skinny to be good for much else.”
“The Salzaar may take him,” Meaty Fists shrugged. “They’re desperate for anyone these days.”
“There’s not going to be enough of him left for even a half coin when I get done with him,” Greasy sneered, stepping forward.
“It’s too much effort for not enough payout. And he’s already seen our faces,” the Sharp One nodded toward Steve. “Easier to just get rid of him now.”
“Boss?” Meaty Fist asked, all three of them turning as one to glance back toward the fourth man, who had stood separate and still the entire time, not saying a word. His eyes were pale, flat, the color of faded whiskey, his hair as white as snow. He hadn’t said a word, but he didn’t need to. His silence, marked only by a slight tilt of his head, said more than enough.
“Right then,” Greasy said, pulling a blade from his belt as once again, in unison, all three of his attackers turned back to Steve. “This is gonna hurt. But that’s okay. You can scream all you want, no one’s gonna hear you anyway.” And Steve knew this to be true; the forest was dense and quiet, the night a heavy quilt resting over her shoulders, and he hadn’t seen anyone for miles. But even if there had been someone near enough to hear his screams, no one would have come to his rescue. In his brief time since he’d left home, he had learned that most of the people of the Six Nations were cold and cruel, indifferent to those they considered outsiders. He wondered when he did scream, because he could smell the cruelty on their skin and see the bloodlust in their eyes, and knew that he would, if his mother would hear him from her rest in the Stars, and abandon her treasure just long enough so she could carry him on her back, both scolding and laughing at him the entire time like she used to. It would be good to see her again, he thought, even if he had failed, and he decided in that last moment that if he were to die, it would be with his eyes open.
And that’s when it happened.
An arrow in Meaty Fists’ chest. A dagger protruding from Greasy’s throat. A heartbeat of silence followed by a crack of bone, and then the Sharp One was falling to his knees, his eyes wide, body spasming. A stillness, perfect and all consuming, that held and waited and watched, while the last man, who had stood by and said nothing, merely watched, while his gang of murderers laughed about Steve’s death, peered around into the darkness, searching for the threat. He was fast, a poniard in each of his hands as he crouched low and scanned the surrounding trees, his body tense, coiled, ready to pounce.
But not fast enough.
There was the flicker of a shadow, a glint of something that might have been steel, followed by a burst of red, before Steve’s last assailant collapsed forward, gurgling on his own blood.
It had taken less than fifteen seconds, and all four of the men who had attacked Steve were now dead, a twisted semi-circle of corpses surrounding what would have been his own grave.
And Steve the only one left alive.
He couldn’t help but wonder how long that would last, as he looked around him, battered, bruised and bloodied, each gasp of breath a burst of pain in his sides. The Sister Moons were kind, and they loved their children, but there were things that sometimes burned brighter or lived in the dark that everyone knew to treat with respect. Or to fear. Steve may have been a stranger to these lands, but he had listened, and listened well, to all the stories his mother told him when they sat together in front of their home fires. He knew he was brave, and could tread with respect when necessary, no matter what Sam or Natasha would have said of him, but he was weak now, and in pain, and he had no idea if what he would next be facing was friend, foe or something else. Would it even make a difference when he knew, at that moment, he was nothing more than easy prey? But whatever was out there in the dark, it had not killed him yet, when it had been so quick, so efficient before, and Steve could not help but wonder why.
There came a break in the cloud cover, and then the Sister Moons were laying their pale kiss upon the ground, a final shifting of the shadows, before a figure emerged, and with footsteps quieter than a cat’s, began to make its way towards him.
It was tall and lean, with broad shoulders and a hunter’s stride. As it drew even nearer, intent in every line of its approach, the clouds shifted again, and under the moons’ pale light, Steve realized it was a man, no more, no less, and all the more terrifying for what he had just done. He stopped, less than two feet away from Steve, just out of arm’s reach, and with a fluidity that again had Steve thinking of cats, he knelt, tilting his head forward to peer at Steve. Another shift of the clouds, another kiss from the Sisters, and Steve was able to see his face.
He had pale skin, almost as pale as the moonlight, and blue-grey eyes the color of clearest morning skies that were studying him intently through thick dark lashes and beneath finely arched eyebrows. High cheekbones and a sharp jawline, with a slight dimple in his chin. All of that was surrounded by a curtain of long dark hair that reached just past his shoulders, held back from his face by a small, tight braid at each of his temples. There was curiosity and intelligence in his gaze, but not much else that Steve could ascertain, and it did little to ease Steve’s wariness as this stranger knelt in front of him, conducting his own careful study. And then he spoke.
“Are you all right?” His voice was low, deep, with a bit of a rasp to it, but still smooth in spite of that, with an accent Steve had not yet encountered in his travels.
“Are you going to kill me?” Steve blurted instead of answering. The man blinked, but other than that his face betrayed no other reaction.
“Do you deserve to be killed?” he asked.
“No!” Steve lifted his chin to glance at the bodies behind them. “But…”
“Are you saying I shouldn’t have killed them? Even knowing they were planning to do the same to you? And not as quickly, I might add.” The man kept his gaze on Steve’s face, continuing his intense scrutiny.
“No, but…” Steve said again.
“But?” And there was the ever-so-slightest change to his expression, a slight cocking of his left eyebrow as he waited for Steve’s response.
“I had ‘em on the ropes.” Steve didn’t have much, especially not now, but his pride was still intact, in spite of whatever condition his body may have been in.
The man’s eyebrow cocked even higher. “Oh, is that what we’re calling it now?”
“They tried to take my things!” Steve argued.
“They’re just things. Nothing worth losing your life for,” he countered.
“They’re mine!” Steve growled.
“Well apparently your lungs are working just fine,” the stranger muttered under his breath. It was as if those words had released something in him, because where his face had been placid, nearly expressionless before, it shifted, becoming keen, fluid as he rolled his eyes in what Steve recognized as exasperation. He was very familiar with having that expression turned his way, especially from Sam.
And then, as if to prove the both of them wrong, Steve coughed, and the pain of it was enough to have him hunching over and gasping for breath. The man’s posture instantly shifted, his eyes regaining their studious intensity.
“How bad?” he asked, reaching out with his left hand. He could have been going for Steve’s face, but he could have also been going for Steve’s neck. He hadn’t hurt Steve so far, but Steve had just witnessed him take down four men as easily as a child plucking flowers from a field. And he was a stranger. So Steve couldn’t help it; he flinched. The man paused mid-motion and sighed.
“Look, do you have a name?” he asked.
“Of course I do!” Steve snapped back. The man rolled his eyes again, and brought his gaze back to Steve, the arch to his eyebrow expectant this time. And yes, all right, even Steve could admit he was being petulant. But it had been a really shitty day so far, after a string of them, and he thought he was entitled. And if this man was going to murder him, he should at least know the name of the man he was going to kill; it was more than those others had bothered to ask of him.
“Steve,” Steve finally answered with a glare. The man nodded, Steve’s glare rolling over him as easily as the shadows had.
"Right," he said, shifting his weight so that his spine straightened, even as he knelt there. “Steve, beneath the Sisters, I pledge it. Do no harm to me and mine and I will do no harm to you and yours. By The Five, I give you my word.” He held up his left hand.
It was a promise, a pledge, an Oath. Steve may have been a foreigner to these lands, but oaths were one of the currencies of his homeland, one of the most vital ones. And this stranger, this man, had sworn by The Five Gods. Those who followed their ways were rare now, from what Steve understood, not many believers left. But they were also known, even among his own, to always keep to their word once a promise was made. An oath from one of them was not easily given, and Steve knew to receive one was a treasure to be valued and kept safe. There were many things those from his homeland may have teased him for; that he was young, quick to anger, and there were things he still did not understand, but the one thing no one could say about him was that he did not recognize treasure when he saw it. And this one he would snatch and keep, especially if it kept him alive.
But there were rules to this, especially among his own, and even he would not break them. And names had value, even among strangers, especially among strangers.
“Your name?” he asked, instead of immediately taking the man’s hand. It got him another roll of eyes, but there was the slightest, just the slightest bit of respect in the man’s gaze this time.
“Bucky,” he finally said, with a slight nod of his chin.
“Bucky, beneath the Sisters, I pledge it. I will do no harm to you and yours and accept your oath to do no harm to me and mine. Underneath the Stars and all they hold between, I give you my word.” Steve held out his hand.
Bucky’s grip was firm and steady as he clasped Steve’s forearm in his own. But he held Steve’s gaze as their pulses met, Steve feeling the oath snap into place. It was a ripple, a shudder, blood against blood, a tingle that was more than a tingle, and for the first time since Steve first ventured onto this trail, he felt as if he could breathe again. It was obvious Bucky felt it too, his eyes narrowing slightly, but the pledge had been made, and it was too late to back out from it now. Steve merely smirked at him, offering no further explanation.
“Right then,” Bucky said, once he had let go and after another moment of careful consideration. “Now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to ask you again. How bad?”
“I’m all right,” Steve lied, shrugging one shoulder, unable to help the wince that followed.
“Uh-huh,” Bucky grunted. “Because that’s not the biggest pile of dragon shit I’ve ever heard.” Steve blinked at the words; that was not an expression he was familiar with.
“What?” he asked. Bucky sighed.
“Your lip is swollen, you’ve got blood on your nose, and a cut on your forehead, and that’s just from what I can see. You want to try that again?”
“I’m fine,” Steve lied again.
“Be better if I had my stuff though.” Steve glanced up at the tree where his bag was still hanging from the branches.
“Really?” Bucky asked, following his gaze. “You almost just got killed and you’re worried about your bag?”
“It’s mine,” Steve insisted.
“It’s not like it’s going anywhere,” Bucky argued.
“It’s mine!” Steve repeated, and even he knew he sounded mulish. But it was; why was it so hard for Bucky to understand that?
“Right,” Bucky sighed, rising to his feet, stepping around Steve. He was so comfortable in his body, his tread even and steady, sleek and agile, every movement belonging to him and under his complete control, unlike Steve’s, which, in spite of what others were always telling him, felt small, weak, and fragile, cracked both within and without most of the time. When he jumped, Steve found himself again thinking of a cat, as he easily shimmied up the tree, and untangled the straps of Steve’s pack from the branches, landing on his feet just as silently as when he had first appeared, the bag in his hands. Steve was already reaching for it just as Bucky dropped it at his hip. “Better?” And it already was. It may not have been much, but it was all Steve had in the world right now, and he needed it with him to feel safe.
“Thank you,” Steve sighed, clenching the bag to his chest, in spite of all his aches and pains.
“Now that wasn’t so difficult, was it?” Then Bucky was back, crouching down in front of him once more, his head cocked as he resumed his study of Steve. “They went at you pretty hard, but from the way you were complaining about that bag, anyone could hear that your jaw’s not broken –“
“I was not complaining!”
“And your lungs are obviously fine,” Bucky smirked at him. But then his face grew serious, almost drawn in the pale light of the Sisters. “But is there anything else I can’t see, aside from what they did to your face?” Steve was tempted to lie; he truly was. Only a fool would admit weakness to someone they had just met, oaths be damned. And Steve could not allow himself to forget that Bucky, in spite of his current demeanor, had risen from the dark like the deadliest of shadows and taken down four men as easily as a butterfly flapping its wings. He had sworn he wouldn’t harm Steve, but different people defined harm in different ways, and while friendly enough now, Steve had no idea what kind of man he was dealing with. So he tried, for once in his life, to actually weigh his options before answering. However, Bucky was not only deadly, but obviously intelligent as well, able to intuit the truth from the delay in Steve’s response.
“There’s no shame in admitting you’re in pain,” he said as he rested his weight back on his heels. “And there were four of them, and they were going at you pretty hard.”
“You seemed to be able to take care of them easily enough,” Steve countered, still not answering Bucky’s original question.
“Yes, but we’re not talking about me right now, are we?” Bucky shrugged off Steve comment as carelessly as if he were brushing a bit of dust from his shoulders. “I’ve already given you my oath and am offering you aid. Don’t be a fool and refuse the hand that’s willing to help you.”
“I’m not a fool!” Steve snapped back, clutching his bag even tighter to his chest, unable to prevent the small wince the movement caused.
“That remains to be seen,” Bucky said, unconvinced in his crouch. When Steve still refused to answer him with anything more than the jut of his chin, he sighed. “Look, lad –“
“I’m not a lad! I’m older than you,” Steve argued. He had no idea how old Bucky was; he was most certainly a man, far beyond the rosiness of childhood, or the lankiness of adolescence. But still young, in the earliest prime of his life from what Steve could determine. Yet if there was one thing Steve was certain of, on this night that had gotten worse and worse ever since he’d first set off, it was that he was the older of the two of them. It wasn’t his fault he was so small. That was why he had left his home after all, to finally fix that.
“If you say so, Steve,” and there was definitely a tone in his voice to match the roll of Bucky’s eyes this time. However, when he continued, his voice was softer, heavy with compassion that caught Steve off guard. “But believe me when I tell you that I understand pride, and how sometimes when we have nothing left, we cling to it all the harder, because it’s all we do have. Whatever you were doing out here is no concern of mine, but I’m guessing you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now I’m offering you help. This is the last time I’m going to offer. Don’t refuse it because you don’t want to look weak. There are worse things out there than weakness. And it’s not something to be ashamed of.”
He was such a strange man, silent and deadly, somehow both fluid and still, and yet he had stopped those men from killing him, and retrieved Steve’s bag when asked. Steve did not know what to make of him, but still, how much worse could this night get. His gaze never faltered as Steve stared up at him, bluer in the moonlight than almost anything Steve had ever seen. There were secrets there, Steve could tell, but also…also kindness. Beneath the weight of that, Steve decided to tell the truth.
“I don’t think anything is broken,” he muttered, looking away. “But they did something to my shoulder, when they first grabbed me, and it hurts to breathe.”
“Right,” Bucky nodded, shifting his weight. “Would it be all right if I touched you? Checked your ribs to see if they’re broken?”
Steve nodded, holding his breath as Bucky slowly reached out, and with a touch that was surprisingly gentle yet knowing, began to palpate his ribs. Steve also couldn’t help but notice that in spite of what Bucky had done earlier, there was not a single drop of blood on his hands. He had been that precise.
“Are you a healer?” Steve asked, needing a distraction from that thought as Bucky ran his hands over his collarbones and down his shoulders.
“No, not a healer,” Bucky shook his head, before humming softly to himself. “But I have spent a bit of time on the road myself, and picked up a couple of things along the way.” He lowered his hands and once again leaned back on his heels. “Ribs don’t feel broken, from what I can tell, probably just bruised. And your shoulder’s not dislocated, although you’re definitely going to be hurting even worse tomorrow. What about your nose? Did anything snap when they punched you?”
“Still probably going to wake up with a couple of black eyes. Any loose teeth?”
Steve ran his tongue over the inside of his mouth to double-check before shaking his head.
“Right then,” Bucky said, rising to his feet and turning away from Steve for the first time. “We should probably wrap your ribs, just to be sure. I’ve got a kit in my bag, with a few things that should definitely help. Will you be all right by yourself for a few minutes?”
“Where are you going?” Steve would refuse to admit, even at knife point, how his voice may have squeaked at the end of his question. Bucky must have heard it however, his eyes narrowing as he glanced over his shoulder back at Steve. He didn’t answer, instead walking over to Greasy’s corpse, crouching with his back to Steve the entire time. When he rose, the dagger Steve had been threatened with was in his hand. As he approached, he held it out to Steve, hilt first. Steve hated to admit how his fingers shook as he took it.
But not as much as he hated to admit how much more secure simply holding it made him feel.
“Better?” Bucky asked, something sympathetic and understanding in his voice. Steve swallowed and forced himself to nod. “And I’m going to get my things. Won’t take too long. Do us both a favor and try not to get into any more trouble until I get back.” And then he was gone, just as quickly and silently as he appeared.
Steve was left as he had been, except now he was surrounded by the corpses of his would-be murderers, the end they had intended for him staring back at him from four sets of blank eyes. It had been so quick, so sudden, and he found himself wondering if their bodies were still warm. He had not wanted to die, but he had no fear of death in and of itself. These men had been cruel, the motivations for their actions unfathomable to him. He had not threatened them, nor tried to take what was theirs. It had not even been sport, not really. What challenge could there have possibly been when they were so much larger and stronger than he was? Yet their actions defined them, and as a result he knew there would be no one coming for them to guide their spirits back to the Stars. But then again, that was their own fault, and Steve would not waste any sympathy on them.
Bucky, on the other hand, well, that remained to be seen.
As if summoned by the thought, the man himself returned not too long after that, although this time Steve heard his approach. Because this time when he reemerged into the small clearing that would have been Steve’s grave, he was not alone.
Behind him, following with steps that were just as confident, and only slightly louder than Bucky’s own, was a horse. Steve himself was not too familiar with horses, although that had changed somewhat over the past few months. But even he, with as little experience as he had, could tell it was a beautiful animal.
Tall and lean, less stocky than the ones most of those from the Six kept in their barns and stables, it had a dark coat that looked sable beneath the Sister’s light, glistening over sleek muscles with every step it took. It had bright, intelligent eyes and a black mane neatly combed back from ears that were cocked forward, which Steve had come to understand meant it was alert and curious, not afraid. That also showed in its gait, as it took confident steps behind Bucky, the lead held loose and easy in his hand. It was obvious it was a well-cared for creature, who was following its rider out of choice and not fear, choosing to be there instead of being pulled along. Steve couldn’t help but be fascinated as the two of them drew closer, Bucky smiling when he noticed where Steve was staring.
It was suddenly difficult for Steve to decide where to direct his gaze; at the striking horse, unlike any he had seen before, or Bucky’s face. Because his smile, filled with pride and obvious love, illuminated his entire face, brighter than the Stars, brighter than even the Sister’s light, and transformed it from something that had been in turns both intense and keen, into something youthful and almost innocent. It lit him from within, and Steve was certain that this, this was the first time he was actually seeing the real Bucky, who he truly was when there were no shadows to cover him.
“Yeah, she gets that reaction a lot,” Bucky laughed, actually laughed for the first time since saving Steve’s life. It was a soft sound, but no less sincere for it, revealing a crooked tooth, and dimples in his cheeks. It was lovely, and Steve recognized it was also probably very rare, another treasure to add to his meager collection. But Steve, in his current state, was in no position to refuse, even if he wanted to. Which he didn’t.
“Daturia, meet Steve,” Bucky went on, as if unaware of the gift he had just given Steve. “Steve, this is Daturia, the most beautiful lady in all of the Six.” However fascinated Steve may have been by the image the two of them made, Daturia appeared as if she couldn’t have cared less. She stared at Steve for less than a minute, before releasing a small huff, as if disappointed, before nudging her muzzle against Bucky’s shoulder. “Yes, yes, I know,” Bucky assured her as he led her toward a tree so he could tie her lead around its trunk. Steve also couldn’t help but notice that Daturia appeared indifferent to the dead bodies around them. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting for so long. But I had to keep this idiot over here from getting killed.”
“Hey!” Steve was suddenly a lot less enamored of the two of them.
“What in The Five’s Shadows were you doing out here anyway?” Bucky asked as he dug through his saddle bags. “Only an idiot ventures through these parts unarmed late at night.”
“It’s not my fault!” Steve snapped. “I was told this trail would take me to Elaris.”
“The trail that’s two miles east?” Bucky’s eyebrow was once again cocked in that way Steve already knew meant he thought Steve had done something stupid. “What happened? You get lost?”
“I’m not lost,” Steve insisted. “I just…”
“You just?” Bucky pressed when Steve didn’t go on.
“There were fireflies. I’ve heard about them, but I’d never seen any before. They were so pretty, and…” And they had been. Small but bright, Steve had been instantly entranced and wanted to see more. There had been so many of them, in so many different colors, and Steve would have sworn they recognized him, and were dancing for him, wanting to help guide him on his way. The sudden silence from Bucky told Steve even more than the arch of his eyebrow would.
“Are you telling me,” he began flatly, “that you wandered off the trail to Elaris in the middle of the night so you could chase fireflies?”
“They were pretty,” Steve said again.
“The Five save me from the stupid,” Bucky muttered, pressing his face into Daturia’s flank. “How the hell have you survived this long?”
“It’s not my fault!” Steve argued. “How was I supposed to know those assholes were going to be here?”
“They’re more than just assholes, Steve.” Bucky’s voice was suddenly very serious, more serious than Steve had heard it during the entirety of their encounter. “They’re what’s left of the Obadiahs.”
“The what?” Steve asked, just as Bucky stepped away from Daturia, a bundle in his hands. He made his way closer to Steve, but stopped short, crouching down next to Meaty Fists’ body.
“The Obadiahs,” Bucky repeated.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“They’re a clan, or what’s left of one. And not a nice one. They were infamous for dealing in all sorts of nasty shit. They had a habit of raiding villages, killing the men and the elderly, and taking the women and children for the slave trade.”
“I thought slavery was forbidden in the Six,” Steve said, feeling ice fill his veins.
“It is,” Bucky nodded. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other places that don’t care where the people they’re buying come from. But that’s not all the Obadiahs were into. Extortion, prostitution, blackmail, and murder, if the right buyer had enough coin. They were causing a lot of problems, mostly up north. But then their leader was killed a few months back, and so was his heir. And then the one after that, and the one after that. They’ve mostly scattered since, what was left of them. But a few of them have taken to hiding in the forests, and preying on travelers who don’t know better than to wander off the road in the middle of the night to chase after fireflies.” Steve chose to ignore that last comment.
“How do you know they were Obadiahs?” he asked instead.
“See this?” Bucky lifted Meaty Fists’ left hand, extending the fingers outward, indicating with his chin there was something he wanted Steve to notice. It took Steve a few seconds to understand what it was he was supposed to be seeing; the missing tip at the end of his pinky finger. “It’s their pledge, proof of their loyalty, and how they recognize one another. So, you know, if you ever see anyone else with the same thing, just turn around and walk away as fast as you can.”
“They really were going to kill me, weren’t they?” The weight of the entire night was suddenly heavy upon Steve’s shoulders. He knew they were, but hearing Bucky speak so plainly, so calmly about it all, locked it into his bones like the coldest bits of ice.
“Yeah Steve, they really were,” Bucky nodded, dropping Meaty Fists’ hand with a calm disdain before coming closer. “Now let’s see about wrapping your ribs and getting the rest of you cleaned up.”
Later, when Steve thought about this night, what he would remember most, in spite of his own fear, and the weakness in his limbs, was how gentle and assured Bucky’s hands had been, careful of his wounds and bruises as he wrapped Steve’s ribs and cleaned the cuts on his face. He made no comment on the prominence of Steve’s ribs, or the paleness of his skin, his gaze once again intent but lacking anything else. When Steve remembered this night in the future, what would stick out most prominently in his memories was the smell of the salve Bucky applied to his skin, the way the tonic he had instructed Steve to take only three sips of warmed him enough to ease his aches, and how his hair glinted in the moonlight, a river of minks cascading over his shoulders, the endless browns of it somehow both more striking and subtle than the red of the blood Bucky had spilled, still seeping into the ground.
Whatever appreciation Steve may have felt toward Bucky and Daturia the previous night was completely gone the next morning. Especially as the two of them stood over him with identical looks of amusement on their faces, even the stupid horse.
Once Bucky finished bandaging Steve’s wounds, the rest of the evening passed in an uneventful blur. Bucky had collected both Steve and Daturia and led them, one of them walking easily and proud, and Steve barely able to stumble along behind, to a second campsite about fifty yards away from the scene of the attack. There must have been something in the tonic Bucky gave him, because Steve fell asleep against his pack as soon as he lay down, before Bucky even finished building a small fire. His sleep had been dreamless and deep, the longest he had managed in far too long. When he woke, it was to an aching body and Bucky kneeling in front of the campfire in the middle of preparing what looked to be some kind of meal.
“So, it lives,” Bucky said without even bothering to look up.
“Ungh,” Steve groaned, rubbing his eyes. And then groaned again as his body reminded him the reason why the two of them had crossed paths last night.
“How bad is it?”
“Everything hurts.” It was true; it felt as if every part of his body, from his toenails to the tips of his hair, ached.
“You took quite the beating last night,” Bucky said as easily as if he were discussing the weather. But there was again that keenness in his eyes as he finally lifted his gaze from his task. “One look at your face and anyone would be able to tell.”
Cursing, Steve slumped back against his bag with a groan. He knew, from past experience, this was just the beginning of the healing process taking its toll. And he still had who knew how long of a journey ahead of him before he got to Elaris. He was seriously considering just giving up and going back home, no matter the consequences.
“And it’s only going to get worse before it gets better,” the asshole across the campfire had the nerve to laugh at him.
“I wish I was dead,” Steve moaned, just as his shoulder reminded him of all that had happened with a painful throb.
“With the way you were snoring I’m sure half of the forest wishes the exact same thing,” Bucky went on with a smile as he rose to his feet and approached Steve, a wooden cup carefully held in his hand.
“I do not snore,” Steve squinted up at him.
“Uh-huh. If you say so. All I know is that we didn’t have to worry about any bears trying to sneak up on us last night with the racket you were making,” Bucky laughed. “Now come on, sit up and drink this. It’ll help.”
“What is it?” Steve asked as he fought with his body to get upright.
“Tea, with a splash of Poppy’s Kiss,” Bucky explained as he handed the mug over. “Not as much as I gave you last night, but it should help.” It did; not at first, and not completely, but as Steve drank more of the tea, the aches in his body slowly began to ease. Those were helped even further along by the flatbread and boiled eggs Bucky was kind enough to also share with him, so by the time Bucky was finished breaking down their camp, Steve thought he might, just might be able to make it to the trail, if Bucky were willing to spare him one last kindness and point out the way.
“Elaris, you said?” Bucky asked as he attached his bedroll to Datura’s saddle. “That’s at least a day and a half’s walk on foot.” Steve shrugged. It was the closest city and Steve had heard the residents were kinder to strangers. He had no reason to go there aside from his own curiosity, and there really was no other place for him to go. “Not going to be easy, condition you’re in.” Steve shrugged again.
“I’ll be fine,” Steve insisted.
“Uh-huh.” That seemed to be Bucky’s favorite response when speaking to Steve.
“I’ve managed so far.”
“Uh-huh.” Definitely his favorite response.
“Look, can you just point me to the trail? I promise I won’t get lost this time,” Steve pressed.
“Until you see a butterfly and decide you want to dance with it.”
“It was fireflies! And they were pretty!”
“Uh-huh.” Steve wondered how someone could imbue so much doubt into so few syllables. “Tell you what,” Bucky went on, fixing his gaze on Steve from over Daturia’s hindquarters, “I’m on my way there myself. And two can make the journey just as easily as one. State you’re in, I don’t trust you to not get eaten by a frog.”
“Look,” Steve clenched his fists. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, truly. But I’ve been on my own for a while now. Last night was just a horrible -“
“There’s even worse out there, you know,” Bucky cut him off, his voice once again flat. “People and clans that make the Obadiahs look like a pile of puppies. And they like to prey on lone travelers, especially in woods like these. You’ve got that knife now,” Bucky cut his gaze to the dagger Steve had still not let go of, “but believe me when I tell you if you cross their path, it’s not going to be enough. Nothing you do is going to be enough, especially not with the state you’re in.”
Steve’s throat felt thick, his bones leaden at the mere mention of the Obadiahs. And the thought that there was even worse was not a comforting one. Steve really was far from home, and alone, a fact that had never felt so weighted until that very moment. He suddenly missed Sam, Natasha, his mother, with an ache more bitter than all the bruises on his body combined.
“And besides,” Bucky casual voice interrupted Steve’s thoughts. “I’ve been travelling on my own for a bit as well. Wouldn’t mind the company.” It was that, more than anything on the tail end of his last thought, as if Bucky had heard them, that made up Steve’s mind for him. He nodded.
That had been less than been less than a quarter of an hour ago, and in spite of Bucky’s comment about conversation, he had been quiet as he efficiently removed all traces of their camp. Steve had been the one to break the silence the moment before they were about the leave, when he asked, “What about the bodies?”
“What about them?” Bucky’s voice was indifferent.
“Are you going to do anything about them?”
“What would you have me do?”
“I don’t know,” Steve shrugged. “Report them? Bury them?”
“Report them? To who?” Bucky shrugged. “There’s no border patrol out here.” And then he focused his pale blue gaze, still just as bright as the morning skies, but still just as sharp as the blades Steve hadn’t even seen him use last night on those men. “And bury them? They lived their lives scavenging off others. The Five will take their payment for that by making sure their bodies give back some of what they’ve stolen.” That had been the end of that, and Steve once again found himself wondering just exactly who this man, who had positioned himself as Steve’s temporary travelling companion, was.
Half an hour later, once they had reached the trail, Steve stumbling in pain during the last few steps, he was convinced Bucky was a demon, that’s who. Both him and his stupid horse.
Because the asshole was laughing at him. And so was his horse.
“It’s not funny,” Steve grunted, from where he hung halfway off of Daturia’s ass, both of his legs somehow tangled in the stirrups. Bucky’s continuing laughter told Steve he disagreed. “It’s not!” More laughter, followed by a choking gasp. At that exact moment, Daturia stomped her hind foot and flicked her tail, so that the hair hit Steve in his face.
“How - how in all the hells did you – did you get tangled up like that?” Bucky gasped.
“I don’t know!”
“Just – just swing your leg over.”
“I can’t! It’s stuck!”
“All right, all right. Just give me – just give me a sec,” Bucky panted from where he was standing, his hands on his knees, Daturia’s lead loose in his grip. Daturia gave another flick of her tail, followed by another stomp of her foot, and Steve felt himself starting to slip.
“She keeps moving!” Steve hissed, desperately reaching for something, anything, to grab onto.
“That’s because you keep wriggling like an eel,” Bucky snorted.
“She’s a stupid horse! I hate them!”
“She’s the one who’s going to make sure you get to Elaris without falling on your face. I would show her some respect if I were you,” Bucky admonished.
“She’s laughing at me! I know it! You both are!” Steve was starting to slip, and he was sure there was going to be a pile of horse shit waiting for him when he hit the ground. But then there were gentle hands on his waist, keeping him steady.
“She’s just very particular about who she lets ride her,” Bucky said. “Now hold on, hold on, easy there, steady, steady, just like that, and lift your leg over.”
“I can’t reach!”
“That’s cause you’re so short,” another snort.
“I know! It’s not my fault!”
“Haven’t you ever ridden a horse before?”
“They don’t like me!”
“I wonder why?”
It took a bit more shuffling and adjustments, accompanied by some soothing words that Steve couldn’t tell if they were directed at him or the hell-horse, but eventually Bucky got Steve seated in the saddle, before with one last smirk he easily swung his leg up and over, settling comfortably behind him. After another moment to make a few adjustments, Bucky did something with his thighs, and then they were off.
Despite Bucky using the excuse of conversation as a reason to accompany Steve, the ride passed mostly in silence. In spite of the tea, Poppy’s Kiss and filling breakfast, Steve’s body still ached, and he knew it had turned all its resources towards healing him. Winter was still far enough away that it was warm in the sun, and Bucky’s body was a steady and just as warm presence against his back. So Steve found himself drifting off from time to time, only come back to himself when he felt the careful clench of Bucky’s arm around his waist steadying him, usually followed by an accompanying grumble, cursing The Five and all the stupidity in the world. But never once did Bucky allow him to fall, and the rolling rhythm they fell into, combined with the scents of horse, leather, wool and fresh forest still clinging to Bucky’s skin was a balm both soothing and centering that allowed Steve to relax and slip away time and time again.
Until, sometime later, when the sun had passed its zenith in the sky and the shadows it cast were long, Bucky called a halt to their journey next to a stream, to break for mid-meal and allow Daturia the chance to graze.
That’s when Steve discovered that he hated horses all over again.
“Ow,” was all Steve could moan from the bush he had fallen over into once Bucky had helped him dismount. He didn’t know both his thighs and ass could hurt that much.
“Feeling it, are you?” Bucky was back to chuckling.
“You’re lucky Daturia has as smooth a gait as she does. Imagine how much worse it’d have been if we’d been going at a gallop.”
“I hate horses.”
The reprieve was short, allowing only enough time for them to eat some lunch, followed by some stretches Bucky insisted Steve perform, before Bucky handed Steve a small jar of yet another salve he instructed Steve to go behind a tree and apply to the areas most inflicted, with a smirk on his face the entire time. But the stretches, the salve, as well as another cup of tea laced with just the smallest dose of Poppy’s Kiss all helped, and soon enough they were once again on their way.
As the trail expanded, merging with a larger roadway that led directly into Elaris’ city gates, Steve had to admit they made good time, much better than Steve would have if he’d attempted the journey on foot. And while Bucky had been a strange companion, both silent and snickering in turns, he had also been a kind one, making sure Steve arrived at their destination safely. Steve didn’t think he was going to miss him; they hadn’t spent enough time in each other’s company to even begin anything that could have resembled friendship, but Steve definitely was grateful for his assistance as well as his kindness, and wished there was something he could offer in return.
He said as much once they both dismounted from Daturia for the final time, preparing to say their goodbyes just inside of the city’s gates. Bucky merely waved him off.
“Do you have someplace to stay?” he asked instead.
“I’ll find something,” Steve answered with a shrug, and found himself again the recipient of Bucky’s intense stare.
“Have you even ever been to Elaris before?” he persisted.
“No,” Steve admitted. “But I was told I should be able to find work here, and they won’t care that I’m a foreigner.”
“They might not care, but that’s still not something you should mention out loud, especially in the middle of the street,” Bucky said.
“Because you never know who might be listening,” Bucky told him. “And while they’re might not be bandits looking for the next idiot who wanders off the path in the middle of the night, that doesn’t mean there aren’t others out there who won’t slit your throat because you said the wrong thing at the wrong time. And right now you look like easy prey.”
“I can take care of myself,” Steve insisted while lifting his chin.
“Uh-huh.” And there it was again. Bucky’s two favorite sounds.
“And I’ll be careful – more careful this time.”
“Right.” Bucky sounded doubtful, the look in his eyes confirming the tone of his voice as he continued to stare at Steve, before he seemed to come to an internal decision, reaching out for Steve’s uninjured shoulder and leading down a small, side alleyway.
“Here, take this,” he said, once they were out of view of the entryway, holding out a small pouch to Steve. From the way it jangled, it was obvious it was filled with coin.
“I can’t take your money Bucky! I’m not a charity case!” Steve snapped.
“It’s not charity, Steve,” Bucky argued. “It’s half of what I found on those assholes who were trying to murder you.”
“You took it from their bodies?” Steve may have shrieked.
“Sh!” Bucky hissed. “Keep your voice down. Remember what I just said? And why wouldn’t I? It wasn’t like it was going to do them any good. And after what they had planned for you, it’s the least you deserve. Take it. You’re going to need it if you hope to last more than a day here.”
Steve didn’t want to, he really didn’t. But there was a logic to Bucky’s words, and his own coin purse was perilously light. The money would definitely help. Yet still, Steve hadn’t really done anything; Bucky was the one who had done all of the work.
“I’ve got enough coin of my own,” Bucky said, as if he was once again reading Steve’s mind. “And I did say it’s only half of what I took.” Somehow it was that, more than anything else, that made it acceptable for Steve to take the pouch from his outstretched hand. Bucky watched, nodding his approval when Steve carefully tucked the bundle inside his shirt.
“Now, pay attention to this next bit, because it’s important.” Bucky waited until Steve met his gaze before he continued. “Follow this street for two blocks, and then make a right, and then a left, can you repeat that for me Steve?”
“Follow this street for two blocks, and then make a right and then a left.”
“Good,” Bucky nodded. “Head down that street for another three blocks, until you see a sign for The Yellow Wolverine. It’s a tavern that has rooms to rent. Don’t let them charge you more than two and a half silvers per night. That includes a room to yourself, a meal and a bath. They’re not the biggest, but it’s clean and it’s safe. There should be enough in that pouch I gave you to last you at least three weeks, while you figure out what to do, but don’t let them know that. Got all that?”
“The Yellow Wolverine. Two and a half silvers per night. A room, a meal and a bath,” Steve repeated, knowing it was expected.
“Right,” Bucky said with one last nod before he straightened. And Steve knew then that this was goodbye. Bucky had been a strange companion, but not an unpleasant one, and had helped a stranger in need. Was still helping one in fact, even at the very end. Steve wished he had something to give him, more than words, because from the look in Bucky’s eyes, he doubted their paths would ever cross again. All he had were the contents of his own pack, meager though they were, and he needed those. That, and the pouch of coins Bucky himself had given him. All that was left, the only thing Steve had to give, were his words. And they seemed such a small and useless thing compared to all Bucky had done.
Yet still, they would have to do.
“Thank you,” he said, meaning it with every drop of his blood that still flowed because of this man. “You didn’t have to help me, but you did. You saved my life, and I’m grateful for that. More than grateful. Thank you.”
“Don’t worry about it, Steve,” Bucky shrugged. “Just be more careful in the future, all right? Try not to go chasing after anymore fireflies in the middle of the night.”
“They were pretty,” Steve insisted, but this time with a smile on his face.
“And you were stupid,” Bucky shot back, with a matching grin on his own. Rare though they were, Steve was going to miss them. And then, with one last glance, one last smile, Bucky took a step back. “May The Five keep you safe, Steve.”
“May the Stars guide you home, Bucky,” Steve returned Bucky’s nod with one of his own.
“Yeah well, home’s a long way away,” was the last thing Bucky said before he turned and walked back to the mouth of the alleyway, where Daturia had patiently stood waiting, keeping watch the entire time.
And then Bucky was gone, without even one last look over his shoulder, and Steve was alone again.